Europa League test awaits WPL trio – will they stand the test?

A small Icelandic town named Garobaer, the Northern Irish city of Derry and the more familiar surroundings of Bangor will be the host venues to Wales’ three UEFA Europa League representatives this week as Bangor City, Aberystwyth Town and Airbus UK look to come away with positive results from their first qualifying round, first-leg ties.

Essentially, these three clubs go into their most crucial and challenging games of the season before the season has actually begun. And whether you are for summer football or against it (as I am), there is little doubt that the scheduling of the European qualifying rounds is unfavourable and a huge hindrance to Welsh football’s hopes of achieving positive results on the European scene.

The start date of the Welsh football calendar is a topic which has been raised and debated time and time again and the scheduling of the domestic season remains one of the burning issues of the Welsh game. I’m not going to delve into the arguments for and against changing the Welsh football calendar as a) the World Cup is on and b) there has already been plenty of reasoned debate both for and against moving the calendar to the summer months – though most significantly, none of the WPL clubs have officially expressed that they are in favour of changing.

So, what we are left with is as situation where the Welsh Premier League’s European representatives regularly face sides that are in mid-competition – thus fitter, sharper and generally better prepared.

This of course, is by no means a blanket excuse as to why Welsh clubs have struggled to compete in Europe – the league’s semi-professional status and clubs limited resources remain fundamental problems – but when taking into consideration those matches that have ended in narrow defeats for WPL sides, the fact that the European qualifying rounds run concurrent with Welsh football’s off-season creates a clear handicap.

The UEFA prize money for advancing into the second qualifying rounds stands at €100,000. Small fry for the larger professional clubs who enter the competition in the later rounds but for developing leagues like the Welsh Premier, such a financial reward would make a considerable dent into a club’s annual running costs. European results are also seen by many as a yard-stick to gauge the standard of the league – positive results on the continent not only ease financial burdens but provide a much-needed boost to the profile and reputation of the league and its clubs.

Since following the league I have little doubt that the standard is gradually improving and the intensified yet much-maligned ‘Super-12’ format can take credit for accelerating the standard of competition in the WPL. The unique structure of the WPL may not be universally popular but it has definitely increased the quality of the league – which was one of the key objectives of its implementation five years ago. Now we hope a trend of improved European results can begin to confirm this.

Of the three Europa League entrants, Airbus have the toughest test on paper as they host Norwegian outfit FK Haugesund at Bangor City’s Bookpeople Stadium. The Norwegians finished third in the Tippeligaen and despite struggling for form, languishing in 14th in the 16-team league after 13 rounds, Airbus can be certain of a stern test.

While Airbus make Nantporth their temporary home for the first-leg, Bangor City find themselves in Iceland where they face Stjarnan – a side who’ve shot to internet fame for a variety of elaborate goal celebrations (which are well worth a look here)! On the pitch, Stjarnan will be very much an unknown quantity to Nev Powell’s side, but unbeaten in 11 games in their domestic championship; the hosts are very much a side in form.

Aberystwyth Town make their long-awaited return to the European stage, as they were quick to point out to Manchester United in their tongue-in-cheek Twitter post last week! The witty tweet comparing the club’s modest Park Avenue to Old Trafford quickly went viral and gaining the club national press coverage. Aber make the short trip to Northern Ireland for their first-leg tie against Derry City. A 6-3 defeat to The New Saints preceded a 5-2 win over Bangor City as part of the Seasiders’ preparations while Derry City, in mid-season and mid-table, held League of Ireland leaders Dundalk to a 2-2 draw last Friday.

There aren’t many certainties in football but one thing you can be sure of is that, regardless of club allegiance, everyone associated with the WPL will be hoping for a healthy return in European results.

Good luck to the three clubs involved and travelling spectators – enjoy the experience and do the Welsh Premier League proud!

HOW WE DID LAST YEAR
Airbus narrowly lost out at the first hurdle after a goalless first-leg in Latvia saw Ventspils edge through on away goals after a 1-1 draw in the return-leg at the Racecourse.

Bala Town marked their European debut with a 1-0 victory at Belle Vue in their first-leg tie against Levadia Tallinn, a 3-1 defeat would follow in the Latvian capital.

Welsh Cup winners Prestatyn Town enjoyed a memorable European campaign, bouncing back from a 2-1 home-leg defeat when Neil Gibson struck in stockage time to seal the Welsh Cup winners a famous 2-1 win against Liepājas Metalurgs. The drama continued well after the initial 90 minutes with Prestatyn edging past the Latvians 4-3 on penalties. A second round qualifying tie to Croatia beckoned for Prestatyn but it proved to be a step too far as they were comprehensively beaten by HNK Rijeka 8-0 across both legs.

I’ve omitted TNS from this Europa League preview blog, they compete in the Champions League second qualifying round against Slovan Bratislava in two weeks’ time.

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